My thoughts on A Separate Peace, Chapter 2…

Chapter two takes place entirely in the narrator’s mind, consisting of flashbacks to his adventures with Phineas, his childhood friend who could seemingly do no harm. Phineas continuously breaks the school rules by skipping meals, wearing a ridiculous pink shirt and the school tie for a belt, and jumping from the ‘forbidden tree’ out into the river – a task reserved for upperclassmen.

Like Kerouac’s protagonist in ‘On The Road’ (Sal Paradise) looking on as Dean Moriarty lives his extraordinary life, John Knowles uses a 2nd-person view to depict Phineas’s endeavors through the eyes of an admiring friend (the narrator). I enjoy this style, as it’s actually much more popular than one might think. Consider Chuck Palahniuk’s ‘Fight Club’ and the secondary view of the narrator watching Tyler Durden aspire through the story. These secondary characters are essentially the filter through which the story of the true main character is told. They are witnesses whose purpose is to record the events – and probably for good reason, as the characters they’re watching usually aren’t the type who would put the story into a sentimental point of view, one the reader can learn from.

Jack Kerouac’s Dean Moriarty would make a terrible narrator, just like John Knowles Phineas. Can you imagine ‘Fight Club’ told through the eyes of Tyler Durden? I know, technically it is, but imagine the revolutionist side of his voice trying to tell a tale we can learn a valuable lesson from. ‘We are the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world.’ No… no thanks.

Also notable – I still haven’t seen the name of the narrator written in the book. I know it to be Gene, but this is significant, as it’s also a literary tool used in these kind of ‘secondary-character-narrator’ kind of novels. Once again, ‘Fight Club’ famously used this trick to hide the narrator’s true identity, supplying the fuel for the holy-s#!t plot twist moment three-quarters of the way through. Aside from that piece of ‘wow’, this trick of keeping the narrator unnamed adds a certain personal aspect to the narrator – it allows us to imagine that they are more like ourselves.

Imagine if every character were nameless and genderless. The reader would be free to zero in on the character most similar to their own personality and filling in the description with their own image! That’s the power of a well-written, but slightly ambiguous character. We’ll always see the similarities – and why do we read anyway? It’s an adventure into another world where we can put ourselves in the implausible situations the characters find themselves in. We like to imagine we’d act just as heroically, and when there is tragedy, we feel it personally because we see ourselves in the character, and their sadness becomes real to us.

This is what drives a good story – connection and attachment to the values and actions that make up a characters – and it’s also why we end up cheering for the climactic ending when good triumphs over evil, or at least some form of retribution is given. We’re right in the middle of those stories, living as one of the characters, whichever we bond with the most, so when that retribution comes, it’s our retribution – hence the catharsis of a good ending.

A story is told through a character, but really, we’re the ones pulled into the story, and we fight the bad guys and face the tragedies, and it’s us who finally triumph over evil in those last couple of chapters. Even in the newspaper stories, we imagine it’s ‘Us’ fighting the wars against ‘Them’, and vice versa on the other side. We’re not happy to just read – we have to exist as part of the plot in order to achieve what we set out to do when we pick up a story.

We have to become involved in order to feel the story. We read to play with our own emotions, and as a writer, that’s what you should be attempting – to make the reader experience emotions that they otherwise would never experience in their mundane life.

 

We’re all escapists.

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